Adventurous, ambitious and ingeniously futuristic, "Sleep Dealer" is a welcome surprise. It combines visually arresting science fiction done on a budget with a strong sense of social commentary in a way that few films attempt, let alone achieve.
Writer and director Alex Rivera succeeded so well with "Sleep Dealer" that it won twice at Sundance, taking the coveted Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award plus the Alfred P. Sloan Prize for a film dealing with science. Although influenced by a variety of films, including "Blade Runner" and "The Matrix," this futuristic story remains distinctively itself.
Rivera, who co-wrote the script with David Riker, calls his film "science fiction with many anchors in today's reality," and its ideas about timely issues such as the privatization of water and the place of immigrant labor in the global economy are pointed and effective. But the first thing you notice about "Sleep Dealer" is its vivid, sensual use of color and its ability to make an imaginary world seem real.
Though Rivera has been playing around with the ideas in "Sleep Dealer" for years in shorts and videos, this is his first theatrical feature, and he wisely chose to collaborate with veteran cinematographer Lisa Rinzler, whose diverse resume includes concert films, "Pollock" and "Menace ll Society."
Rinzler persuaded Rivera to shoot on Super 16 instead of digitally to give the film its effective warm and grainy look. Although its resources were limited, "Sleep Dealer" also makes beautiful use of a pastel neon color palette, with key pieces of futuristic equipment highlighted with unusual shades of blue, red and green.
The film is set in Mexico and is almost entirely in Spanish (with English subtitles). Its opening sequences, located in a tiny farming town in Oaxaca called Santa Ana del Rio, look the opposite of futuristic -- except that a few years back, a multinational corporation dammed up the local river and armed guards and surveillance cameras now enforce exorbitant payment for water usage.
Twentysomething Memo (Luis Fernando Pena), the son of a farmer, is something of a techno geek, addicted to hacking into telephone conversations. One night, he eavesdrops on one conversation too many and the result so affects his family that Memo decides to leave town and head for Tijuana, a center for the new global economy, a place where serious money can be made.
Truth be told, Memo has always wanted to go to Tijuana, to become a "node worker," a term he's heard but never completely understood. Eventually, he learns all about this unnerving system, which, someone says, "gives the U.S. what it always wanted: all the work without the workers."
If this sounds a little mysterious, that's the way "Sleep Dealer" likes to play things, doling out information a bit at a time, exposing us to a high-tech world where factories are called "sleep dealers" because they lead to physical collapse before we completely understand what's going on.
Before Memo gets into this world, he meets Luz (Leonor Varela), the film's requisite beautiful young woman, on a low-tech bus. An aspiring writer, she has a relationship with a different kind of futuristic technology as well as her own reasons for wanting to stay in touch with Memo.
Then there is Rudy (Jacob Vargas), a drone-operating military pilot in this security-conscious society who is first seen on a reality TV show about "heroes who use technology to blow the hell out of the bad guys." Only it's not that simple. It never is.
"Sleep Dealer" has its share of potboiler elements, and human relationships are not its strength. But that's not the point. Filmmaker Rivera succeeds in his goal of using science fiction to put a different spin on some provocative issues, and he's made an exciting movie in the process. When Memo's father asks rhetorically, "Is our future a thing of the past?," he turns out to be speaking for all of us, whether we realize it or not.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for some violence and sexuality
Running time: 1 hour and 30 minutes
Playing: In limited release (partially in Spanish, with English subtitles)